I don't remember much about 2009 — I think I was in 9th grade, or maybe 10th — but I know almost every line of dialogue in that year's finest YouTube video: "Hanwei Practical XL Katana Unveiling HD," posted by the user "That Sodding Gamer." If you haven't seen it, you won't be disappointed. In it, a man who looks to be in his late 20s unboxes a mid-range replica sword with the help of his mother and younger brother. He recounts his past encounters with low-quality swords as he struggles to remove the plastic packaging. His demeanor is alternately bored and petulant, even as he comes face to face with his long-awaited $210 purchase. His mother, entrusted with the camera, seems to annoy him. Her bemusement at her adult son's interests is palpable, but she sounds resigned to her fate: Her grandchildren will be swords and sarcastic T-shirts. Such is life in an austerity economy.
Nowhere has such performative consumerism become more central than in "nerd culture," a term that has grown to encompass nearly every film, TV show, and video game released since 2000. Aided by the internet, and by an economy that discourages millennials from progressing to the old model of adulthood (homeownership, career, and marriage), it has infected the weakest of a generation and spread primarily through the medium of YouTube. The identifying symptom comes in the form of the "unboxing." A mainstay of the most miserable and content-poor channels on YouTube, the unboxing follows a simple formula: a box is obtained, a box is opened, and its contents are presented to the viewer in a simulation of the basic act of consumption.
That unboxing videos exist at all would seem to expose one of the most uncomfortable truths of consumer culture, and of human psychology in general — that the anticipation of buying a product is often more gratifying than actually having it. The act of watching someone else buy and open something you want tricks the brain into releasing dopamine in the same way opiates mimic the natural endorphins of a runner's high. An optimist might assume that this neurological shortcut would make "retail therapy" obsolete and deal a fatal blow to the massive marketing complex that dominates the modern sensory experience. They would be wrong — brutally, tragically wrong. Very quickly, the infinitely adaptable free market found a way to turn the unboxing video into the purest and most repulsive manifestation of consumer culture yet.
The symbiosis between subscription box services and unboxing videos creates a hellish feedback loop.
The media response to the unboxing phenomenon, where there was one, came in the form of earnest human-interest stories. However, even when viewed as one of the internet's harmless curiosities, the prose that describes unboxing is still strikingly dystopian. In 2014, CNN described a depressing scene: "Some viewers are parents who are playing toy-unboxing videos to entertain their children. The parents might not be able to afford all the toys, but their kids can watch the videos and dream." If the glorified toy commercials that dominated children's TV in the '80s and '90s presented an eerie overlap between entertainment and marketing, the prospect of having children watch toy unboxings for fun (punctuated by built-in YouTube ads, of course) is its logical endpoint. The Los Angeles Times proclaimed in 2015 that unboxing videos were not just the present but the future: "YouTube has become the next frontier for toy companies to master, experts said, as kids become harder to reach through traditional media like television." The article, however, warned readers that they would not all reach the heights of That Sodding Gamer: "Producing the kind of content that will propel a toy unboxer to YouTube stardom is hard work."
Eight years later, I revisited That Sodding Gamer's channel. "Hanwei Practical XL Katana Unveiling HD" now has more than 1.1 million views. The most recent upload is yet another unboxing video, this time of a subscription box called the Zavvi Z-Box, which describes itself as "the mystery box that's made for geeks." Subscription boxes like Z-Box arrive monthly, typically cost between $20 and $40 and contain an assortment of items under a general theme summed up by one word; recent months have included "mystical," "legends," and "invasions." Our subject, who now holds the camera himself but still appears to live at home, opens the box and pulls out the first item, an action figure of a DC Comics character. "Not a huge fan of the character… yeah, I don't really watch or read DC much," he mumbles. He pulls out the second item, a T-shirt of the V for Vendetta mask drawn in glitch art style, a la The Matrix. "Yeah, I'm not sure what this is," he says as he lays it on the table. This continues for over six minutes — he opens a Judge Dredd figurine and asks "What, pray tell, am I supposed to do with this?" All of his videos are like this, although the most recent ones only have a few hundred views. By the end of each one, the viewer is left with a number of questions. First, why did he buy merchandise for franchises he has no interest in? Second, why would he film himself doing something so miserably mundane?
The answer is provided by the subscription box itself, which has "RECORD. SHARE. LOVE." printed on the side. Services like Z-Box, founded in 2014, are understandably thrilled with the marriage of social media and public consumption — such has, in many ways, eliminated the need for traditional advertising. Z-Box's website explicitly asks visitors to watch YouTubers, including one named "SirVapingAlot," unbox their product. Other subscription services follow the same business model. Loot Crate, which launched in 2012, directly pays popular YouTube accounts, like the user boogie2988, who has 3.9 million subscribers, to unbox its products. You can see some of the accounts they sponsor on their website — that is, underneath a warning that a Marvel-themed oven mitt sent out last year led to "241 reports of burn injuries, including reports of the glove melting and burning consumers' skin."
The symbiosis between subscription box services and unboxing videos creates a hellish feedback loop in which consumers purchase goods for the express purpose of giving a company free advertising. Consumers subscribe to these services so they can tell others to do the same, acting with the unthinking purpose of a virus, the only goal of which is to spread and infect others. As the Loot Crate box tells its customers, "DOCUMENT. SHARE. ENJOY!" That "ENJOY" is the very last step is no mistake.
In this way each of these services resembles a tiny pyramid scheme. The consumer subscribes to the service, and then, before he (they're always men) even knows what the package contains, he whips out the camera and implores others to subscribe themselves. The most successful unboxers, like the YouTuber Barnacules Nerdgasm, who has more than 860,000 subscribers and whose videos can accrue more than 500,000 views, get sponsored by these companies, and their video descriptions contain coupon codes that ensure the uploader a sales commission. The Loot Crate website encourages users to post referral links to their Facebook in exchange for $5 credits toward their next box, a practice that brings to mind the halcyon days of Zynga's FarmVille.
The geek subscription-box business model treats the actual contents of the box like prizes handed out for reaching a sales goal. The product itself, the thing being consumed, is second to the generalized act of consumption. The Loot Crate subreddit seems to confirm this — nearly every post is a complaint about three-month shipping delays and "exclusive" items being spotted on store shelves. Some unboxers have realized this fundamental disconnect. Instead of feigning excitement for "Deadpool Funko Pops" and T-shirts designed to repel women, they openly admit that "LOOT CRATE SUCKS!!!" while they do their still-obligatory unboxings. Videos like this are marginally less disturbing than their overly enthusiastic cousins — and the sight of a subscription box being unceremoniously dumped onto the floor provides a mild catharsis — but, ultimately, this tiny act of rebellion amounts to nothing. As one YouTuber, Rossco Soletrain, said at the end of his anti-unboxing video, "Pretty much the only thing Loot Crate is good for is things to put in the landfill, so I'm going to cancel." Soletrain goes on to say he's switching to Nerd Block, another geek-oriented subscription box. How did that turn out? Not well, according to a newer video in which our hero throws the contents of the Nerd Block across the room. "The reason I started doing these," he said, "is because I thought it would bring in subs," meaning subscribers. "It really hasn't." His voice of dissent only has 652 subscribers.
The way companies distribute and advertise products may have changed over the years, but the process of mindless consumerism remains the same. Social media has lent an air of grassroots authenticity to the industries that interest nerds, a feeling that regular TV commercials could never capture. In return, consumers are provided consumers with oven mitts that melt above room temperature and shitty comic book T-shirts. You buy, you throw away, and you buy again. The slogan of our era is the refrain of the subscription box: Record, share, love. Document, share, enjoy. Watch others purchase, purchase, let others watch you purchase. Never stop purchasing.
Alex Nichols is the social media editor at Current Affairs.